Sunday, June 4, 2017


This year has been a series of catastrophes.

 Adversity #1. I am riding my bike alone, deep in thought, working on a talk, then I regain awareness to find myself in the ER. I recall the bike ride but not the fall, not the kind strangers who found me, not the ambulance ride nor the first twenty minutes of the ER evaluation. I was awake and talking the entire time and as I later heard, only mildly misbehaving. There were a few broken bones, sprained knee ligaments, a cracked helmet and a small amount of blood around the brain. The last of these resulted in two days observation in the Neuro ICU, one day on the Neuro floor and then home. The difference between a small bleed and a fatal one is likely only a couple of miles per hour. This was only slightly more unsettling than not knowing cause of the crash. A hole in the road with leaves found by my brother-in-law and patched before I was able to investigate was more likely than a crossing animal or foul play from an aggressive driver. In the hospital I knew everyone from receptionist to nurse to doc involved in my case and was impressed by their kindness. I surmised I had not previously pissed off any of them.

Adversity # 2. Two weeks later in a Neurology tutorial group with eight first year med students I get a call from my wife Charlotte. Defying company rules I take the call and learn the house is on fire and the big trucks are there. I further defy the the rules by leaving an on going class remarking over my departing shoulder the old cliche of teaching instruction, "House on fire, talk among yourselves."
It was a distressing drive. I had been too stunned to ask Charlotte for any details. I assumed the worst as any respectable Irishman would-total loss and my fault. Did I leave the stove on or power equipment running on the porch?

When I arrived 15 minutes later, the fireman had blocked traffic both ways so I had to park on a side street. As I approached, the full standing house progressively and gloriously came into view. The fireman in full regalia, the fire inspector and eventually  the sheriff, plumbers, gas people and electricians were all there. Only the clergy were missing.

How did the fire start? The dishwasher motor ignited and the fire spread laterally in both directions about six feet. The stone counter tops prevented any vertical extension of the flames saving the house. The dishwasher on fire? That seemed as likely as the sink burning or the pizza oven flooding!

Unfortunately the house and the panicked pets, freed as Charlotte entered the front door, were choked by a massive amount of black smoke, a consequence of the rubber/tar insulation all dishwashers apparently have. The kitchen was a total loss, including all appliances and the adjoining great room as well- walls, ceilings and floors. In addition all carpets and bedding throughout the house were pronounced dead.  Every single piece of clothing we own was removed, counted and taken to an industrial cleaner. Some of them including My Beautiful Jacket from Florence did not survive.

Faced with a half year of homelessness we decided to camp out in one of the properties out buildings This was our best option to stay with the animals and gardens, as well as supervise the construction. We have a barn, painting studio, spring house, and tenant shack. The insurance company offered a hotel down the street which was too depressing to consider. At this point I am feeling like a tragic character in a Tennessee Williams play.

We chose the painting studio, built in 1987 by us, almost 100 years after the house. It was designed by our old friend Robin from med school days, a brilliant architect who now lives in Boston. It is a 50 by 22 foot single room with twelve foot ceiling, eight mostly glass very old French double doors, each with transoms lining the two long sides of the building. Up front there is bay window with eight one by four foot windows, also antique, meaning the glass was poured, not pressed, with uneven thickness projecting a slightly distorted image.

It took two weeks to clear out the painting paraphernalia and to bring in the living necessities- bed, table, chairs, hot plate, toaster oven, microwave and sound system. TV did not make the cut. The refrigerator, the sink within a substantial island, and full bathroom were already here, a last minute thought when the building was conceived, in case one of our parents had to join us in their December years. Well it's November for us and here we are!

Despite the official entry into the English language of  the word "glamping" in 2005, a portmanteau of glamour and camping, I never recall hearing the word nor did I grasp what it implied until I was thrown into it full throttle by the above events. Cooking here is as fun as it is around the campfire except way easier, not to mention the comforts of shower, bed and  A/C.

Over the last twenty years I had spent only brief moments in this room, as opposed to Charlotte who had come here to paint for hours most days. Once cleared it took no time to appreciate the full panorama of stunning sites in constant view. The wavy images through some of the antique glass makes me smile every time I notice To the south there is a four acre pecan orchard with a thriving camellia garden at the distant border under giant pines blocking the road 75 yards away. There is one mature loquat tree just outside the bay windows and for the past three weeks I have frequently opened one of the windows to grab a few to eat.  On the east, a near contiguous citrus stand with lemons. limes and kumquats leading into an old forest with many trees several feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. On the west, twenty feet away is the fifty foot long three foot high native stone wall which took three years of most of  my spare time to build. The house is on the far side another fifty feet up the slight hill.

The furnishings are the ultimate step back into time. After our wedding in 1972, we rented a room in a large old Gainesville, Florida house. It was the grandest room on the corner with large windows and great view of the hip Duck Pond area speckled by old growth trees. We had a bed in the middle of the room, just as we do now, a red table and four old bentwood dining chairs- the exact same table and chairs we just pulled out of the barn.Total value 1972 -$150. Was I happy then? Yes. I had a beautiful wife who liked her job as a designer at the best ad agency in town, more than enough money to live as a student, attending med school which was half as hard as Georgia Tech and the information so much more cleverly presented. It was a great joy to live there and learn .Glamping in this room has so many similarities to those happy times in Gainesville.

Adversity #3. At the end of the first week we are victims of an insect swarm.  A quick check on Google confirms our fears-termites. A thorough review of the choices to combat these pests suggested a complicated system involving the drilling of twelve inch holes every ten feet, around both the house and the new digs, formerly known as " the studio" and inserting a plastic toxic bait apparatus. We called the utility people who assured us they would be here to mark all gas, electric and phone lines, three days max. A week later the drillers came and of course the markers had been a no show. The guy decides to drill anyway assuring me he can tell if there is an obstacle before any damage can occur. I was as skeptical as he was confident. On hole number ten, he hits the incoming gas line at 30 psi which spews out enough stinky natural gas in one minute to alarm the neighbors and precipitates a call to the fire department who, for the second time in one month, bring the big trucks and block traffic both ways. This delays the gas guy who alone has the expertise to shut down the calamity.

The Adversity #4 Once the gas line was repaired and a few electrical problems from turning the circuit breakers off and on with the gas leak were solved, we had no problems for two weeks and perceived a gradual improvement in our "glamping" skills. Then one day the lights would not come on and the electricians came for the 5th time in 6 weeks. Peeling off the panel case we found a pile of mouse dung which had shorted it out. Nice work cats.

A decorator consult suggested curtains everywhere. Denied. To disturb the view would be a sacrilege. Are we worried about people driving by, seeing the lights, parking and then walking 75 yards to see us in our underwear? If they do take the walk and the peek, let them have it. As the trees leafed out, the flowers bloomed and the grass greened we became progressively enthralled with the entire spectacle. We miss the modern cooking devices but have become proficient with the toaster oven and magnetic hot plate. We generally send the laundry out. Occasionally we wash items in the sink with a washboard I bought off Amazon, then hang them on the clothes line which took five minutes to install between the barn and a maple tree 25 feet away. I love the nostalgic act of putting the clothes on the line.

This room is so much better than any room in the house or anybody else's house for that matter.
Epiphany-You can only be in one room at a time!

I am not sure what makes me happier-the living quarters or the fact we are able to be satisfied with so little after so much adversity. Streetcar Named Desire comes to mind. At first it appeared we would be a Blanche Dubois (played by Vivian Leigh in the iconic 1950's movie version) "depending on the kindness of strangers" - friends bringing us food or eating at their house while doing laundry and lending us some clothes to wear, But no. The play is correct but the right character for us is Stanley Kowalski (played by Marlin Brando who I love to emulate, we look so much alike). Blanche becomes the metaphor for our adversities as she was for his shortcomings, and as he so passionately cried out to her at his victory and her last tragic turn,
        " Ha Blanche, do you hear me? Ha ha ha."

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